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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I am reading a book by Steven Covey called The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, which he wrote to help organizations and individuals find their voices. The premise of the book is that if you don't do this, you or your organization will not be able to achieve greatness. I highly recommend that you read it, and I will gladly lend it to you when I am done with it, but that is not the focus of this post.

I considered the word greatness for a long while. I asked myself this question: "What does it mean in education?" Then I started thinking about my career.

I never thought of myself as a great teacher. I certainly had passion, enthusiasm, and creativity, but I never thought I had the stuff for greatness; I did the best I knew how with the resources that were available. I found myself always thinking about what I could do to improve my lessons, to overcome negative student behaviors, or to encourage individual students, while at the same time, I pondered my own shortcomings. My strategies and skills were not unique. Aside from a little bit of personal flair, they were the compilation of wisdom and experience gained mostly from other teachers.

Although I was not great, I would like to believe that I was an above-average teacher. As most teachers do, I went through the typical three-step teacher-attitude cycle:

  • Whoa! This is too much, and I want out.
  • The students don't care. The administration doesn't support us.
  • I can do this. This is fun. Get out of my way, and let me do my job. If I help just one student, it is worth it.

I was able to get out of the second-phase trap of negativity and into the third, self-actualized phase because of wonderful mentor teachers who helped me understand that it helps no one to complain and point fingers. Mr. Devereaux, the Spanish department head, taught me that I first had to be the solution to all my problems, and then I could enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey. I don't think I was an effective teacher until I learned that lesson.

As teachers are required to do, I attended workshops and teacher meetings in which I was inspired to be great. I saw Stand and Deliver, which depicts how a high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, challenged the mental and social limitations his students had placed on themselves, thereby bringing them to greatness. I felt that if I could be that passionate about teaching students, I could do anything. Then I went back into the classroom and faced the reality that I had only a certain amount of time, strength, and energy, and my desire for greatness faded a bit, though I never let it die completely.

When I decided to become an administrator, that spark of desire for greatness was rekindled and refocused: I wanted to inspire other teachers to be great and thus pass that on to their students. So here I am.

I have seen that spark of greatness in you when I have been in your classrooms and watched you interact with the students. Recently, I have been a first grader, a second grader, and an eighth grader (and I will soon be a ninth grader), and I have witnessed elements of your greatness firsthand while spending the entire day at your campuses and in your classes.

In the second part of this post, I describe these experiences in more detail and pose some questions about greatness for you to ponder, but please share your thoughts about what I've discussed here.

Comments (178)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Shannon,
I agree that teachers must have a passion for working with children and helping them grow. I never thought of the attitude cycle as a way for individuals to assess if they are cut out for our profession. I have worked with those individuals who are not passionate about teaching and are working towards the next vacation or break. My question to you is how do you adjust and learn to collaborate and work with those individuals? It was tough for our teaching team to work with a certain teacher who didn't care. We often found ourselves trying to pick up any slack and were trying to help our students as much as we could. However, we could only do so much because they were not in our classroom throughout the day. Besides being respectful and civil towards this person, how could we have improved our situation? Thank you for any advice that you have.

Stace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am going into my 4th year of teaching and am finding that step one and two are slowly creeping up on me. I still have more of a step three attitude due to the fact that I still am retaining some of the "newbie" excitement, but it is hard to not feel some of the negativity permeate the enthusiasm. The daily battles with trying to keep/get students motivated and dealing with the front office can be trying. I am working on just maintaining my ideals and working on improving myself, which can only help. As educators, I don't know that we are ever experts. There are always opportunities to improve and learn more to ensure success for our students.

Lori Wardingley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I imagine after 20 years of teaching you have learned many lessons. How do you stay motivated to keep current in your studies? Right now I am driven to be better than great but my biggest fear is that my drive will fade as the years pass. Do you have any advice or encouragement for a new novice teacher?

Mark Schutte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone who is in education I believe experiences all three steps that Mr. Johnson wrote about. There are moments or days when the job is just overwhelming. There are the days when it feels like there are roadblocks at every turn keeping us from doing our job. And then there are the days when we can bust through the roadblocks and get back to the reason we all became teachers in the first place -- to teach children. The happiest times are in the classroom, when it's just the children and me. More and more, I think all teachers need to stay focused on the children in order to keep us going. The roadblocks will still be out there. We just have to remember the children are on the other side.

Mr. Johnson, I am curious how your perspective about teaching has changed, or if it has, now that you're on the administrative side.

Mark Schutte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone who is in education I believe experiences all three steps that Mr. Johnson wrote about. There are moments or days when the job is just overwhelming. There are the days when it feels like there are roadblocks at every turn keeping us from doing our job. And then there are the days when we can bust through the roadblocks and get back to the reason we all became teachers in the first place -- to teach children. The happiest times are in the classroom, when it's just the children and me. More and more, I think all teachers need to stay focused on the children in order to keep us going. The roadblocks will still be out there. We just have to remember the children are on the other side.

Mr. Johnson, I am curious how your perspective about teaching has changed, or if it has, now that you're on the administrative side.

Melissa Chamberlain's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked the comment, "I first had to be the solution to all my problems, and then I could enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey". When things go wrong we always look to others for solutions. Sometimes it is you that you need to look at. I will keep this quote in mind when I come across a situation where I want to blame someone.

Craig Lubbers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Debbie,

I understand your concern and have thought about this issue of switching classes as well. I think one answer to that question is that principals like to keep their teachers fresh and on their feet. I think that switching grade levels causes you to depend on others, and to be constantly learning. I think it is very easy for teachers to get set in their ways and begin to look past what is known and current. I think that teachers begin to focus more on just schooling than learning as referred to what Jeffrey A. Kottler, Stanley J. Zehm, and Ellen Kottler describes in the book "On Being a Teacher." Switching grade levels for me has been both a positive and frustrating experience. It has, however, pushed me, caused me to collaborate more with others, and keeps me focused on my students and learning new things. I do think, though, that there can be too much changing and there are times when it can be better to just stay put.

Reference: Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a Teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is encouraging to know that other teachers go through that three-step teacher-attitude cycle. I tend to be in step one and two most of the time. It seems that just when I have had enough, I fall into step three. I feel that I have that step three attitude just enough to keep me going. Don't get me wrong, I love my job as a teacher and a facilitator for learning, but the things that come along with being a teacher can be very disheartening at times. I enjoyed reading this blog. I will definitly come back again!

Craig Lubbers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Traci,

Keep being that light no matter how small you think it is. Remember that the smallest light can light up the entire room. Traci, I enjoyed reading what you posted and I can tell that you have a desire and passion to be great. That desire and passion will feed your light and help you become an even greater teacher. I agree that at times it seems that the size of our light changes. You always have to remind yourself of step three. Staying focused on the students and why you are teaching helps you look past all of the other things that might keep you from being the best, effective teacher that you can be. I think that it order to become a great teacher we most go through the highs and the lows. We need to learn from the low points and our mistakes. We must also reflect on our experiences and ourselves and think how we can help other teachers to the possibility of skipping steps one and two. Wouldn't that be great!!

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that each position we move to in the education field renews our sense of wanting to achieve greatness. I have recently been a mentor to a teacher intern. I was excited to see her passion for education, which rubbed off on me. I went back to being more creative in the classroom, like I had been during my student teaching experience, and I truly enjoyed it.

I also would like to say that I think every administrator should take the time to walk into each classroom to really see what great things are taking place. I have been in several schools and have yet to see a principal come in without doing a formal observation. I always see or hear "our staff is doing a wonderful job." However, I have to wonder how they know - I never see them!

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